I Am Seen

Inclusion in creative practice

Last week I was fortunate to attend the Learning Technologies Barcamp – an excellent event run for the last 9 years by Martin Couzins. The format is simple. People are invited to join a series of short facilitated conversations; each round lasts about 15 minutes and is sparked by the facilitator’s areas of expertise. Once that time is up, the people seeding the conversation will move to the next table to talk about their topic with the next group. The event comes to an end when all groups have had a conversation with each of the facilitators.

This year the theme was inclusion, and I was delighted to be there as an artist and facilitator. In conversation with Martin prior to the event, we agreed I would come up with an invitation for people to stretch their creative muscles as we talked. I thought about different ways we could use our hands as an artistic device – to hold a brush or pen, to draw around, to use as a way of directly applying paint to a surface. For me – the hand seemed to offer a simple way to involve people.

Then, on the day of the event, I watched an episode of Bargain Hunt before leaving the house, and everything changed. In the middle of the programme there was a section about John Petts, a London born artist who moved to live and practice in Wales. In 1963, Petts designed and created a stained glass window featuring a Black Jesus for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, following a white supremacist terrorist attack on the church, that killed four African-American girls aged 11–14. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.

Petts, a conscientious objector during World War II, was said to be horrified “as a father and as a craftsman” upon hearing the news. Working with Welsh newspaper the Western Mail, Petts was able to encourage donations from many thousands of people to pay for the window. He visited Birmingham, Alabama – spending time with the local community, and the window was installed and dedicated in 1965.

The Welsh Window. Designed by artist John Petts, the stained-glass window depicts a black Christ with his arms outstretched; his right arm pushing away hatred and injustice, the left extended in an offering of forgiveness. The words ‘You do it to me’ are included in the lower sections of the window.

I’d not heard this story before, and it really moved me. The horror, the tragedy, and the beautiful artistic response from thousands of miles away, left a mark. I love the idea that so many people wanted to be included in that response, and in that moment, I reimagined what I could offer the good people at Barcamp that evening.

When I arrived in London, I explained my day to Martin, then set up a table with a long roll of paper on it, and plenty of different kinds of pens. I drew an outline loosely based on my guardian figures and turned it into a blank ‘mosaic’. As people arrived, they saw me working and a few approached me. I’ve been to previous Barcamps, both as a listener and participant, and as a painter. Last year I made art while everyone talked – this year we’re making art together while we talk. The event started and I briefly explained my original plan, and the decision to change it based on what I’d seen earlier in the day. I then invited people to get stuck in – talk about inclusion and what it means to you, and draw that experience as you go.

People started interacting with each other, the tools and the surface, and art began to happen. Here are a few things I noticed:

The art was invitational. People were generally willing to participate and were not coerced in any way. When we’re facilitating learning – how often can we make that an invitational process rather than a coercive one?

Folk noticed that what they conceive in their mind’s eye, doesn’t necessarily materialise on paper. I encouraged people to focus less on a preconceived outcome, but instead to play with the process of applying colour, shape etc. This focus on process can help free us from some limiting beliefs.

I invited people to decorate a piece, or pieces of the mapped out ‘stained glass’ design. Some folk took one panel, some took more, and some ignored me completely and adapted panels to suit their design ideas.

People seemed to enjoy the opportunity to make – to try something different, and to feel included in an artistic process, something many of us had not experienced before now.

By the end of the evening, the guardian was nearing completion. It was shown to everyone, and the following day, I finished up the outlines to enhance the ‘stained glass’ effect of the design. The finished piece is titled ‘I Am Seen’.

‘I Am Seen’. Cocreated art – made by guests at Barcamp 2020

Considering the theme of inclusion more broadly – I want to acknowledge the time invested by Martin in seeking to create an open, inclusive event. Initially – the invitation to take part was open – anyone could see it and anyone could ask to take part. In some ways this proved successful. For example, I was the only male facilitator, all the others were women and/or non-binary. In terms of age – I am pretty sure I was the oldest at 54 – and there were people facilitating conversations who are much, much younger than me.

In other ways the invitation did not work so well. One person of colour was going to facilitate and had to pull out at the last minute due to ill health. That meant all the facilitators were white. We were conscious of this beforehand – and resolved to be more considerate in future of where we plant the seeds, the invitations to participate. An open invitation is an important thing, and where it is made is equally important. I’m currently studying The Dice Charter as a useful tool for conferences and events. You might find it useful too. I also want to acknowledge a conversation about inclusion I had with Sukh Pabial which was really helpful.

Thank you, Martin, for organising another excellent evening, and thanks to everyone who spoke and made art too. You can read more about the event here – and I’ve no doubt that Barcamp will return again in 2021.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

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